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Voegelin’s Question of the Ground

Voegelin’s Question Of The Ground

Voegelin’s notion of the differentiation of consciousness may be clarified by setting it off against what he considers to be the foundational struc­ture of consciousness that does not change, but rather constitutes the transhistorical basis for its historical transformations. Implicitly reject­ing modern and postmodern arguments for a radically historicist view of conscious experience, Voegelin asserts that there are indeed invariant structures in consciousness, the most elementary of which is the “ten­sion” of questioning. Consciousness is in essence the Question itself, arising from wondering ignorance and continuing to press beyond every­thing that comes to be known.

The concrete questions and answers change, but not the dynamism of questioning, nor the incompleteness of its satisfaction. For as explained in the last chapter, the Question, the search for meaning, is for Voegelin at its core a search for the mysterious “where-from and where-to, the ground and sense of existence.” Exis­tence is a “tension toward the ground, ” and it cannot but ask questions about the ground, about the origins of things, about why things are as they are, about what they came from and how they came to be, about what they ultimately mean. If the ways in which such questions are asked and answered vary, nevertheless “the complex of experience-question-answer as a whole is a constant of consciousness.”1

Voegelin has found it convenient to explain the historical differentiations of consciousness in terms of how the question of the ground is asked and answered. In all pre-differentiated cultures, answers to this question take the form of complexes of stories, or myths, which relate the specific actions of divine personages or occurrences during a primor­dial, sacred time in order to explain the reasons for the present existence of things and for the specific manner of their present existence. In other words, the ground of reality is represented in terms of numerous con­crete entities, principally “the gods,” which are themselves parts of the Whole of the imaginable realm of the cosmos.

With the intellectual advance of higher civilizations both East and West, such myths are in­creasingly rationalized through the speculative construction of causal chains of explanation, which extrapolate from lesser to higher origins, in many cases leading finally to a single highest divine element or principle in the cosmos. Voegelin calls this mixture of mythic representation and speculative extrapolation “mytho-speculation,” describing it as a “transi­tional form” between, on the one hand, more pure or compact forms of mythic thinking in which there is as yet no rigorous systematization of such causal chains and, on the other hand, later symbolizations of the ground that move beyond cosmic representation altogether. For in selected societies there occurs the insight that no image, no name, and no explanatory concept can adequately express the nature of the ultimate ground of things, because it is absolutely transcendent and so beyond human knowing. Such is the progress of discoveries culminating in what Voegelin calls “the differentiation of consciousness.”

As consciousness is where knower and known, thought and being, meet and correspond, what “differentiates” is twofold. On the side of being, reality splits into (1) the things of the cosmos and (2) their ultimate origin, which is not another cosmic thing, but somehow beyond all cosmic things. On the side of the thinker, correlative to this bifurcation of reality, human beings discover themselves not only to be things in the sense-perceived cosmos but also to be engaged in transcending it. Consciousness is found to be a Question “that leads to the Beyond of the world because it is not al­together of the world in which it is asked.”2

The differentiating break with the cosmos, as Voegelin presents it, can itself be more or less radical; he speaks of “incomplete differentiations” and “tentative breakthroughs, ” such as those represented by the texts of Confucius, the Tao Te Ching, Buddhist teachings, and the Upanishads.3 The most radical breaks, he claims, occurred in Hellas and Israel, where what he calls the “noetic” and “pneumatic” differentiations respectively led to the unique constellation of discoveries and problems that shaped the foundations of Western culture. Their most striking consequence has been the thoroughness of the dedivinization of the spatiotemporal world in the West, a result of the insights of the two traditions of philosophy and Judeo-Christian spirituality complementing and assisting each other in the removal of the ground to pure transcendence.

In order to appreciate in some measure Voegelin’s analysis of the intel­lectual and existential challenges arising from these events, so that we can appreciate how they make conspicuous the mysteries of human par­ticipation in the Whole, we will take a closer look at his account of the pre-differentiated, compact setting of the differentiating experiences, a setting Voegelin attempts to describe through his notion of “the primary experience of the cosmos.”

The Primary Experience of the Cosmos

The primary experience of the cosmos may be loosely defined as what is felt and known about reality prior to philosophical or spiritually differentiated revelations about it. It is the bedrock experience of belonging to an ordered totality of things, a cosmos, that in its movements, origins, and meanings is complete within itself. As Voegelin puts it:

“The cosmos of the primary experience . . . is the whole, to pan, of an earth below and a heaven above–of celestial bodies and their movements; of sea­sonal changes; of fertility rhythms in plant and animal life; of human life, birth and death; and above all . . . it is a cosmos full of gods.”

The last point is essential. What it means in philosophical terms is that the ground, the purposive origin of things, is perceived or experienced not as “beyond,” but as contained within the spectrum of spatiotemporal exis­tences. Reality is saturated with divine presence, because the very origins of things are manifest in the cosmos. Divine presence is experienced as “the gods, ” manifest entities, encountered in powers, elements, and reg­ularities in the cosmos, through which they reveal themselves and with which they are more or less convertible. As a result, for the member of ancient society, nature is never encountered as a neutral, impersonal “It,” but as a “Thou,” alive with purpose and emotion.4

It is difficult for us to perform the leap of imagination needed to ap­preciate the “intracosmic gods” as signifying something other than naive poetic fancy and superstition, or perhaps a kind of personality-projec­tion or even wish-fulfillment. We may be helped, Voegelin’s analysis sug­gests, by approaching the ancient compact consciousness from the direc­tion of the question of the ground.

What is “The Question About the Ground?”

In order to do so, the following distinction should be kept in mind: the question about the ground of something is not that about its temporal or mundane “beginnings” (although, in archaic consciousness, these two questions are not well distinguished). To ask where a tree “comes from” in terms of vegetative reproduction is not the same as to ask where it ultimately, primordially “comes from”–that is, what its metaphysical or divine origins are. The reproductive explanation can–as Aristotle takes pains to point out–be stretched out ad infinitum with no rational con­tradiction.5

But the question of the originary “coming-to-be,” the ques­tion about the very fact of existence, carries with it an intrinsic rational demand for an explanation affirming a first beginning, a primary origin, or a first principle. The meaning of traditional mythic thinking is incomprehensible to us unless we distinguish these two types of question and see the latter of them, that of primal emergence, to imply the termi­nus of a ground, however that ground may be symbolized.

As Voegelin writes in his exegesis of Aristotle’s understanding of the issue, “The knowledge that being is not grounded in itself implies the question of the origin, and in this question being is revealed as coming-to-be, albeit not as a coming-to-be in the world of existing things but a coming-to-be from the ground of being.” In ancient societies the myths of origins answer the questions about the ground through creation narratives, which must not be confused with stories about mundane events.” Through its time of the narrative, which is not the time of becoming in the world, the myth expresses the coming-to-be from the ground of being.”6

With this distinction between mundane beginnings and primordial beginnings in mind, it is possible to situate compact mythic thinking by stating that it takes place in the conceptual horizon of an imputation of the Beginning of things to other things represented as in or belonging to the cosmos.

The Finite Chain of Causation within the Cosmos

Voegelin has approached the self-understanding of ancient societies, as he has all others, in terms of the manner in which they explain and symbolize order in reality. The compact myths of Beginnings are ways of telling how things became ordered. The way they do this is to describe the derivation of certain cosmic things–such as humans–from other cosmic things–such as the gods. Since all of reality is, for ancient mythic imagination, contained in the finite cosmos, there can be no means of explaining the derivation or meaning of anything other than through reference to some other finite reality.

Therefore there flourish, in ancient mythic society, what might be called cross-referential explanations of reality. Voegelin attempts to clarify how this operates by distinguishing four “partial orders” of reality as making up what he calls the “primor­dial community of being.” These are divine reality, the physical world, social reality, and the individual human being.

Although, as he stresses, there is in compact thinking no hard and fast conceptual separation of any of these orders from one another, we can conclude, he argues, from the ancient texts that the pre-differentiated interpretation of reality proceeds by allowing each one of these “areas” to provide an elucidating model for the explanation of the order in each other area. The expla­nation advances, first of all, from the divine to the other, ultimately derivative, orders. The political realm of an ancient civilization such as that of Babylon or Egypt, for example, may be explained through the use of symbols denoting the divine realm, so that “the geographical order on the earth is the image of the original in the heavens.” And the king who rules over that realm may be symbolized as a god, or as a son of god, thereby uniting society with the divine forces from which it derives and which it copies.

But the explanation also moves in the opposite direction–since the gods must be understood and symbolized in terms of the features of the physical and social worlds. Thus the gods are repre­sented as kings and consorts, beasts or plants, reflecting political and earthly life; and the heavens themselves may be interpreted as reflecting earth’s geography. Voegelin has written copiously on these structures of symbolization, and their details are not our concern. What we wish to make clear is that the use of mutual analogy allows for the expression of an originating meaning of things within a closed and integrated network of elucidation that does not penetrate beyond the sphere of spatiotem­poral imagination.7 There are three features of the primary experience of the cosmos and its methods of symbolization to be especially noted, and they all pertain to the issue of the underlying oneness of reality.

The Sense That All Things Are Essentially One

First of all, the pervasive and often bewildering multiplicity of mutu­ally elucidating analogies in mythic thinking grows out of a dominating awareness that all things are essentially one in that they all belong to the one cosmos. This sense of the unity of all substances, of their “Consub­stantiality” as it has been dubbed by John A. Wilson in a wording Voege­lin has adopted, overrides, in the archaic experience, the distinctness and autonomy of entities to a degree that individual substances are regarded as by and large interchangeable.

Within such a perspective, as Voegelin observes with a detectable trace of delight, “men can become gods, gods can appear in the form of man, animals are gods, gods can appear in the form of animals, man can appear in the form of animals, plants can start talking, everything can change into everything else.”8 The primary expe­rience is above all the experience of participation, not only of the human in the embracing order of things but also of everything in everything else.

Secondly, however, it is clear that some things participate in existence in a more enduring fashion than other things.” Consubstantiality not­withstanding, there is the experience of separate existence in the stream of being, and the various existences are distinguished by their degrees of durability.” Human beings, for example, last longer than many animals or plants, while society continues beyond the lifetimes of individual hu­man beings, and at the far end of the spectrum the gods preceded and will presumably outlast human society and perhaps the world itself.

A hierarchy based on degrees of lasting is implicit in the structure of the primary experience of reality, as a result of which, in the explanation of order through intracosmic analogies, certain areas of reality–specifi­cally, the physical universe and the gods–are accorded a “higher rank of representativeness” with respect to the foundations of meaning in the cos­mos. Or: in the pre-differentiated representations of the ground, there is a directional factor, based on qualities of lasting, that ascends penultimately to the physical universe and then to divine forces as the ultimate source of order in the cosmos.9

Thirdly, and finally, what Voegelin refers to as the “cosmos” of the primary experience was not itself an object of Cosmological mythic thought, and it does not represent simply another entity. It is indeed a mythic symbol, but one arising only from philosophical reflection on the primary experience. The Greek kosmos means “the ordered Whole of reality,” which is rather a recondite concern: the common matrix assumed “behind” the variegated things of experience. The conception cosmos thematizes “the background of reality against which all existent things exist,” and as such it is an image created by philosophers articulating their “trust in the underlying oneness of reality, its coherence, lastingness, constancy of structure, order, and intelligibility . . .”; it specifies the unifying depth from which all specific things stand out as foreground.

Describing it in this fashion, we can identify it as an early, semimythical, and semiphilosophical figuration of the ground that is recognized, in more differenti­ated consciousness, to be beyond all finite, existing things. In other words, cosmos, in Voegelin’s use, is a consciously anachronistic but exegetically necessary symbol representing what, for the primary experience of real­ity, is an originating ground of things as yet known and felt only in, or among, the diverse field of spatiotemporal things.10

Mythopoesis Leads Inexorably Beyond Space and Time

It should be apparent, now why Voegelin considers the traditional mythopoeic understanding of the primary experience to be intrinsically unstable and to demand, with a patient but unrelenting inner exigency, the differentiation of consciousness. The destabilizing factor is the latent presence in questioning consciousness of the insight that no spatiotem­poral reality provides a sufficiently convincing answer as to the why, the where-from, and the where-to of existing things.

The conditions for the insight are provided by the self-discoveries of consciousness. As con­sciousness comes to understand and thematize its own nature as some­thing spiritually and not materially constituted, as a formative and recep­tive intelligence (nous), for example, or a spirit (pneuma) responsive to the invisible urgings of conscience, duty, and grace, the creative and order­ing ground comes to be speculatively removed from material creation. The ground of Beginnings recedes from the realm of the finite and palpable, and the latter, the world of things, is increasingly recognized as con­tingent upon originating powers beyond it.

In order to convey the genuine difficulties and perplexities involved in grasping that the ground is not another cosmic thing, not something per­ceivable by the senses, and therefore to the undiscerning indistinguishable from nonreality pure and simple, Voegelin in some places describes the ground as “non-existent reality,” reserving the term existence for spatio-temporally conditioned phenomena. This leads him to define the tension toward the ground as “a tension between existence and non-existence,” allowing his intended meaning of “a tension between temporally condi­tioned existence and the divine fullness of being in which it participates” to be supplemented by the phrase’s unavoidable connotation of “a ten­sion between spatiotemporal existence and nothingness.”

This is not scholarly mischief or obscurantism–though it may be perceived as such–but gentle dialectical craftsmanship responsive to the fact that for Voe­gelin’s readers, as for those first called to move beyond the primary expe­rience of the cosmos, the differentiation of a reality determined by crite­ria other than the experiences of sense and imagination is an undertaking fraught with perils of misunderstanding. In the ancient societies, that undertaking reaches its goal when it is realized that in the compact sym­bolizations the divine fullness of the ground, the “everlastingness” of being, is inadequately represented as types of existing things–as the celestial heavens and, more specifically, as “the gods.”

What shatters the authority of that symbolization is the discovery that “the astrophysi­cal universe must be recognized as too much existent to function as the non-existent ground of reality, and the gods . . . as too little existent to form a realm of intracosmic things.” It is a discovery that reveals “the lines along which the Cosmological style [of symbolization] will crack until the cosmos dissociates into a dedivinized external world and a world-transcendent God.”11 But if there is an inherent instability to the Cosmological symbolization of reality in the inadequacy of its representation of the ground, there are also factors that render it stable enough to resist, for millennia, the differ­entiating breakthroughs.

First of all, there are the intellectual obstacles, already mentioned, to conceiving the divine ground as beyond all imaginal representation, as ineffable and in some essential way distinct from nature; and these obstacles are bound up with those involved in the dis­cernment and articulation of an interior dimension of the personality–a rational soul (psyche noetike) for the Greeks, a spirit (ruach or pneuma) for the Hebrews and Christians–that functions as the site of participa­tion in divine transcendence.

Secondly, it must not be thought that the breakthroughs are only, or even primarily, a matter of ratiocinative dis­tinctions. Equally significant are emotional factors, for the discoveries are burdened with existential implications. In order for human consciousness to make explicit to itself that the divine Beginning lies beyond the field of existing things, it must face directly the anxiety-provoking fact that all such things, itself included, are merely contingent and not neces­sary realities–that things might just as well have not existed, or be dif­ferent from the way that they are.

There is a tacit awareness of the con­tingency of things in pre-differentiated consciousness, of course, but it is not conceptually thematized; it is grasped, rather, as the fragility of a social or natural order threatened, through the passing of time and the turmoil of events, or through the displeasure or perhaps forgetfulness of the gods, with alienation from the sources of power and being, or with destruction through mismanagement or sheer inscrutable divine decree. In other words, the ancient mind too is aware, in a fashion, of the pos­sibility that what is might not have been, of “the mystery of existence over the abyss of non-existence,” but this awareness is not yet a clear recognition.12

And as long as the necessary ground of being is conceived in terms of spatiotemporal entities and events, allowing the time and events of everyday life to be followed by the imagination to where they seamlessly merge with depictions of the primordial, sacred events that explain their meaning and lend them the sanction of necessity, then ex­plicit recognition of the mystery of contingency–the sheer mystery that things happen to be–and its attendant anxiety will be avoided.

Athens and Jerusalem Do Embrace

Voegelin’s complex and voluminous treatment of the discovery of tran­scendent reality in the West is one of his richest achievements, the corner­stone of his philosophy of history and one of the most intellectually challenging areas of his work. Certainly, his interpretations of Israelite history, Christian revelation, and Greek philosophy are not free from controversy; while his erudition and philosophical brilliance are generally credited, scholars, especially theologians, with backgrounds of specialized expertise and with less ecumenical interests, have taken issue with some of his major conclusions.13

As already pointed out, Voegelin’s position is that there are distinct Israelite and Hellenic discoveries of transcendence and that these complement rather than contradict each other. The man­ner and extent of that complementarity he considers to be almost univer­sally unrecognized–an oversight due, he would say, primarily to the Greek philosophical achievements not being commonly understood as having their roots in experiences of the transcendence of the ground of reality at all.

While the experiences of Abraham, Moses, and the prophets of Israel, including Jesus, clearly announce the revelation of a personal God beyond space and time, the Greek interpretation of reality as “Being” has yielded a conceptual vocabulary that is much more ambiguous with respect to its experiential origins. Voegelin would argue, however, that it is impossible to make sense of the writings of philosophers such as Xeno­phanes, Parmenides, Heraclitus, and Plato except on the assumption that their works represent an increasingly nuanced discernment of an “ultimate realissimum” beyond the world of engendered and perishing things, and beyond too the boundaries of the soul’s range of knowledge and partic­ipation.

And it is the complementary nature of the Hellenic and Israelite breakthroughs that, he would argue further, made classical philosophy the analytical instrument par excellence for the exposition and clarification of meaning in Judaic and Christian spiritual teachings and documents.14 This is not the place, however, to pursue questions about the con­vincingness of his exegeses of historical events or individual thinkers such as Plato and St. Paul, because the historical unfolding of the discoveries of transcendence is of relevance to this study only insofar as it provides the backdrop for Voegelin’s analysis of the nature of differentiation itself.

The Cosmos Remains After the Ground is Discovered

Voegelin’s philosophy of consciousness as laid out in his major works does tell the story of its historical development from more compact to more differentiated capacities and states, but it does so in order to provide a coherent and compelling account of the structure of your consciousness and mine, which must cope with the same growth from pre-differentiated to differentiated self-interpretations, through adequate insights into ex­periences of transcendence, as was undergone in the drawn-out cultural evolution of our collective tradition. According to Voegelin, because the ground of reality was discovered by Israelites and Greeks to be some­thing other than its cosmic effects or contents, something beyond the cosmos, the language and images through which we make sense of real­ity in the contemporary West are dominated by symbols that derive from the differentiated perspectives.

But this does not mean that we under­stand these concepts and images correctly, that we have achieved suc­cessful self-appropriation of our own consciousnesses as differentiated. For this is not an easy task. Reality is, for every human being, initially and overwhelmingly the cosmos of the primary experience, into which we are born and which even the relatively rare achievements of articulate experiences of transcendence do not annul but supplement.

With a tone of admonishment for those whose intellectual or spiritual sophistication might seduce them into forgetting it, Voegelin emphasizes that the pri­mary experience of the cosmos in which the divine presence of the ground is compactly experienced always remains the condition within which the differentiation of a divine Beyond, and of a nous or spirit in human existence, takes place. “The differentiation of existential truth does not abolish the cosmos in which the event occurs.” “Compactness and differ­entiation [are not] simply historical stages of consciousness, the one suc­ceeding the other in time, but poles of a tensional process in which the revelation of the Beyond has to overcome progressively a hard core of compact resistance without ever dissolving it completely.”15

Now, with respect to the question of the ground, the essence of differ­entiation is the bifurcation of the cosmos into a natural or immanent world and a deeper stratum of reality known solely through conscious­ness’ finding a Beyond to its own (and thus to all finite) nature. [In the previous chapter we] touched on the metaphorical nature of Voege­lin’s category of the Beyond, and now this point must be amplified. The reality that transcends the world does not exist in such a way that one might perhaps catch a glimpse of it through an extremely powerful telescope. The Beyond is not something on the other side of a spatial dividing line. When through searching and passion and insight the ex­traordinary souls of Israel and Hellas discerned a world-transcendent reality, whether it was the true God of Israel, or Parmenides’ Being that is other than the world known by sense experience, or the Platonic-Aristotelian Nous, what they found (or what was revealed to them) was immediately present only in consciousness.

The data that forms the “material” for the insight that the finite cosmos has as its ground a reality that is other than finite being is the “movement of the soul, ” as Voegelin puts it, that discovers its own nature both to presuppose and to be co-constituted by a spiritual reality unrestricted by finite limitations. Unless consciousness finds itself engaged in the questioning tension that so de­sires to identify the true ground of reality that it finds all the splendors of the cosmos still not enough to explain and satisfy its own restless capac­ity to think and feel beyond those splendors, then there can be no occa­sion for an epiphany of transcendence.

When such a movement does occur, what has happened, in Voegelin’s terms, is that the tension of consciousness toward a reality beyond all cosmic contents has become transparent for its own nature as “spiritual, ” i. e., as related by participa­tion to a ground that is incommensurate with limitation. Of course such a ground is known only in the interiority of meditation and reflection, and so it is nothing in the world that can be pointed to.”Such terms as immanent and transcendent, external and internal, this world and the other world, and so forth, do not denote objects or their properties . . . .The terms are exegetic, not descriptive.”16 To put it another way, the differentiation of consciousness does not entail the discovery of another world. There is only the one cosmos. The “truth of existence, ” as Voegelin calls human living informed by the differentiating insights that reveal it to be a tension toward tran­scendence, does not annul the “truth of the cosmos, ” human living as part of and subject to the rhythms, structures, and laws of finite reality.17

On the contrary, the Beyond of finite things can only be manifest through finite reality. It would be in line with Voegelin’s thought to say that transcendence is a further dimension of meaning that is revealed when the finite cosmos is recognized to be inadequate as the source of its own meaning. That is, we become aware of strictly transcendent being when we recognize that finite meaning presupposes an ultimate ground of meaning that can only be non-finite. But while our questioning leads us to recognize this non-finite ground, we also recognize it to lie beyond the scope of our finite imagination and understanding. Thus the re­stricted dimensions of meaning we understand lead us to acknowledge an unrestricted dimension of meaning that we understand to lie beyond our understanding.

Draining the Physical World of Sacrality

The culturally diverse, concrete symbolizations of a transcendent real­ity always refer, therefore, to a specific range of experiences intrinsic to consciousness, experiences that “pertain directly only to man’s conscious­ness of his existential tension.” But–and this is crucial–the “differentia­tion of consciousness indirectly affect[s] the image of reality as a whole.” How? Most importantly, by draining the physical world of sacrality.

The physical universe, originally a cosmos alive with the mysterious powers of the gods, becomes, with the flight of the divine to transcendence, an im­personal “world” or “nature”–either the mundane world created by the world-transcendent God of Israelites, Jews, and Christians, or the philo­sophically disclosed world of nature consisting of an autonomous network of intelligible structures. With devastating thoroughness, the “truth of revelation and philosophy has become fatal to the intracosmic gods.”18

But if in the new dispensation no finite thing or set of things can ade­quately represent the ground, still consciousness, as the site of participa­tion in transcendence, can do so, within limits. Out of the discoveries of transcendence, then, there flows the development of symbols that stand at once for both the true nature of the divine and the true nature of consciousness as the site of participation in transcendence. In the Greek orbit, the central symbol for this divine-human reality is, as we have seen, nous, usually translated “intellect” or “reason”; while in Israel and in Christian culture it is ruach (the Hebrew term) or pneuma (its Greek translation), usually translated “spirit.” While the symbol pneuma may not be said to be synonymous with the symbol nous, they are function­ally equivalent insofar as they both indicate the site where transcendent divine and human consciousness enjoy the intimacy of participation.19

Voegelin’s interpretation of the degree of equivalence between these two terms, and the specific characters of the distinct experiences to which they refer, is one of the more intriguing aspects of his work. To put his conclusions very simply, one might say that the respective terms differ with respect to the “location” in consciousness that they emphasize: the “noetic experience” centers in the area where questioning, reasoning, and judging perform their operations, whereas the “pneumatic experi­ence, ” as a “divine irruption which constitutes [a] new existential con­sciousness, ” takes place at the axial depth of the personality out of which reason and its structures arise.

In the noetic experience, as Eugene Webb has summarized it, “focal awareness . . . is directed to the Nous, the questioning consciousness, while the pneumatic center, that level of real­ity in the depths of the soul at which it is experientially united with being itself, remains in comparative obscurity.” Thus the philosophers are led to explore the structure of questioning consciousness itself, as well as the structure of reality that “becomes luminous through the noetic the­ophany”; while exegetes of the pneumatic experience such as St. Paul concentrate upon “the intensely articulate experience of loving-divine action” at work in the unplumbed depths of the soul.

Pneumatic or Noetic: It Depends on the Emphasis

To put this in terms of Voegelin’s theory of consciousness, the essential difference between the two experiences lies in which pole, human or divine, is emphasized in the divine-human encounter: the questioning human partner who, desir­ing to know the ground, finds it to be the Intelligence at the heart of all questioning; or the divine partner, the God whose gracious invasion of the soul turns it toward its truth. In both experiences, however, there is “the same consciousness of existence in an In-Between of human-divine participation, and the same experience of divine reality as the center of action in the movement [of the soul] from question to answer.”20

It is perhaps more obvious now why Voegelin raises the symbol of metaxy to a position of singular importance in his philosophy. It conveys in his view the signal truth about consciousness insisted upon by both differentiations: that the truly human is the “human-divine” sphere “in-between” the cosmic things and their transcendent ground; that this in-between, established through questioning, is a tension from the finite toward the ground; and that this is the one and only place where the true nature of the divine can, within limits, reveal itself in this world, most glaringly and expressly through the deeds and words of prophets, philosophers, and saints.

It is time, now, to again draw attention to the fact that there is a pro­found irony at the heart of the differentiating process. It is that as the true nature of the ground comes to be known as something radically distinct from earth and sun, king and Pharaoh, so its hiddenness, its genuine unknowability, is revealed. The human beings who find in their own finite intellectual and spiritual capacities clues to the divine being do so only by recognizing that such being transcends incomprehensibly all manner of being with which they are familiar. To know of a Beyond is to acknowledge something beyond knowledge, to discover a mystery—the basic, primal mystery of the originating ground of all reality.

This is not to say that pre-differentiated consciousness was not ac­quainted in its own way with the Mystery. The ancient texts show a deep respect for the inscrutability and occasional unpredictability of the sa­cred powers that guide the events of the cosmos. But theirs is still a tacit, not a focal, awareness that a strictly unknowable reality lies behind all explanation of origins. It is only when divine transcendence is differenti­ated to the point where all intracosmic symbolizations of the ground begin to be seen as “false gods, ” as imaginative fabrications, because their figurations inadequately symbolize a ground known to be other than all cosmic contents, that the mystery of the ground at last comes into focus in all the fullness of its disturbing nature.

Voegelin is perhaps unrivaled in his ability to recount and celebrate the advances in knowledge achieved through the Greek and Judeo-Christian discoveries while simultaneously explaining the cognitive and existential difficulties deriving from the disappearance of the ground into transcen­dence. His concern to maintain a balanced appreciation of these factors leads him, in his many discussions of Plato, to emphasize that as the latter’s exegeses of soul, society, and cosmos unfold their remarkable tapestry of insight, they are studded with references to a ground of real­ity utterly beyond our possible ken, such as the Agathon in Republic whose content is impossible to describe and which can only be referred to paradoxically as “being beyond being” (epekeina tes ousias), or Phaedrus’s “superheavenly region” (hyperouranios topos) from whence all truth and reality are nourished but which has never been and never will be worthily praised by any mortal.

Similarly, Voegelin’s account of Isra­elite and Christian experiences describes a continuity, stretching from the Mosaic epiphanies to Jesus’ comprehension of his own meaning, of increasingly profound revelations of the “Unknown God” (agnostos theos) who is so recondite in terms of time and place that he can be, as taught by the followers of Jesus, the source of inner illumination in every human soul. The philosopher’s way of truth and the prophetic call to conversion illuminate existence at the cost of rendering its background an abyss of mystery. As Voegelin puts it, the truly divine ground is known only “against the background of his unknowability.”21

On a few oc­casions, Voegelin has suggested that Aquinas’s treatment of the proper names of God in the Summa Theologica is an exemplary expression of how both the philosophical and Judeo-Christian differentiations, in com­plementary fashion, disclose the true nature of the ground only through simultaneously disclosing its unapproachable mystery:

“In his discussion of Pseudo-Dionysius’s De divinis nominibus, Thomas Aquinas has brought the problem of the depth of the ground to the following formulation: The name HE WHO IS is most proper for God because it goes beyond the particular forms of mundane life. Beyond that name, there is the name GOD, because it signifies the divine character of the ground; and beyond that there is the name Tetra­grammaton [YHWH], since it expressed the incommunicability of the divine substance.” (ST I, XIII, 11)

“Thus Thomas identifies three areas that we also have encountered in our analysis of the existential tension toward the ground: (a) the area of noetic exegesis that cannot go beyond the symbol of the ground of being; (b) the area of the compre­hensive pneumatic reality of knowledge to which belongs also the experience of being personally addressed by God; and (c) the area of the incomprehensible, of which we know only that it is the area which we touch by the symbolic terms of noetic and pneumatic experiences. Insofar, however, as we know about the ineffable beyond the expres­sions of experience by means of such symbols as the Ineffable or the Silence, this knowledge, too, belongs to the consciousness of the ground as one of the dimensions of its logos.”22

Original Experiences vs. Mystical Traditions

A digression may be permitted here to point out that, in Western civil­ization, the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic mystical traditions represent the full flowering of an appreciation of divine mystery, traditions with which Voegelin is certainly familiar but which he has very rarely men­tioned in his writings. For a philosopher so deeply concerned with what can loosely be called mystical experience, whose writings are specifically concerned with the concrete historical experiences underlying influential ideas, and who has even accepted for himself the designation of “mystic-philosopher,” such reticence seems odd.23

One explanation for it, per­haps, lies in the fact that his primary concern has always remained diag­nosis of the roots and consequences of political disorder, especially with regard to the modern West. The great mystics of various religious tradi­tions are no doubt for him paradigms of the well-ordered, pneumatically differentiated soul; indeed, he has declared that “classical noesis and mysticism are the two predogmatic realities of knowledge in which the logos of consciousness was differentiated in a paradigmatic way.”24 But the insights of the great mystics are not directly relevant to his major political concerns, and so they remain offstage in his works–as befits their emphasis upon silence.

There is another explanation as well for Voegelin’s exclusion of the mystical “traditions” from his exegeses. It is indicated by the word pre­dogmatic in the sentence quoted above. In these matters, Voegelin is seeking above all to communicate an understanding of original experi­ences of pneumatic or noetic differentiation–those of the primary dis­coverers or those of any of us who follow in their steps–precisely in order to shake our interest in the fixed verbal formulas or images that belong to distinct “traditions” that have hardened into competing dog­mas, and thereby in his view threaten to occlude entirely the commonly human, transcultural structures of mystical experience. For, to Voegelin, differentiation is by definition a mystical experience.

It is clear from scattered remarks that he considers the mystical side of Christianity to be the living core of its tradition, and one can easily extrapolate to say that for him mysticism would constitute the heart of every differentiated religious tradition. Further, one can say that for Voegelin the mystic’s experience, defined in broadest terms as the personal, reasonably articu­late discernment of or encounter with the ground as transcendent, is the core of what its Greek originators meant by “philosophy” as well. This position is unmistakable in his analysis of the pre-Socratics and of Plato. And this means that, if one is to live the “truth of existence, ” one must become able to share, to some degree, directly or sympathetically, in the common element of all mystical experience, and this is the apprehen­sion of transcendent being. Consequently, his concern is to acquaint the reader with the experiences that initiate traditions more than with the traditions themselves.

Voegelin’s writings return with steady regularity to an emphasis on the need for a certain existential disposition as the precondition for suf­fering the differentiating experiences. Indispensable is trust in the intel­ligibility and goodness of reality. Such trust he considers to be the very essence of consciousness, which, as the desire to know, must always be pushing ahead of its present understanding. Questioning is de facto ori­ented toward what is as yet unknown; and the growth of consciousness toward its implicit goal, which is the complete fulfillment of knowing and loving, comes only by way of approaching the surmised unknown through such attitudes as hope and faith and love. Though this is true of consciousness at all times, a heightened and explicit dependence on hope, faith, and love–the “virtues of existential tension” as Voegelin calls them–is required if consciousness is to suffer the understanding that its very identity is constituted by that which it knows cannot be humanly known with exhaustive adequacy.

According to Voegelin, the philosophers’ self-exegeses–particularly those of Heraclitus, Plato, and Aristotle–are impressively clear about this existential context for their differentiating experiences: “Reason [or nous] is differentiated as a struc­ture in reality from the experiences of faith and trust (pistis) in the di­vinely ordered cosmos, and of the love (philia, eros) for the divine source of order.” Likewise the classic Christian expression, in the Pauline letters, for the essence of one’s relationship to the God of the Fathers and of Jesus stresses hope, faith, and love (or charity, agape), since our transcendent meaning and destiny as revealed by the Unknown God through Jesus cannot be “seen.” In both cultural orbits, Voegelin maintains, the great articulators of the truths of the new dispensation are eloquent and un­equivocal on the issue of the basic “mode of the tension” out of which consciousness may discover its real self: it is that which Voegelin, follow­ing Henri Bergson, calls the “openness of the soul,” the trusting desire to participate more fully in the structure of reality, however mysterious.

The Desire to Certainty Overrides the Desire to Know

Anyone who would genuinely entertain the differentiating insights and, furthermore, attempt to live in their light must therefore be prepared, Voegelin argues, for “the heroic adventure of the soul” that doing so requires. Many, or most, are not equal to the challenge, for reasons that most often reduce themselves to one: “the very lightness of this fabric” of existence based on faith in a transcendent reality proves” too heavy a burden for men who lust for massively possessive experience.” It is the desire for certainty, overriding with familiar consistency the desire to know, with its unanswerable questions and its increasing awareness of mystery, that tends to prevent those of us who live in the noetic and pneumatic dispensations from understanding and sharing in the “truth of existence.”25

And yet for us in the contemporary West, in Voegelin’s estimation, there is no alternative to achieving a personal understanding of our own consciousnesses as engaged in a movement toward transcendent reality other than to suffer a kind of existential deformation. The reason for this is that, as already noted, we live in a linguistic and cultural horizon predicated upon the differentiating insights. For example, the “modern scientific worldview” that dominates our contemporary imagination and conception of reality, and that derives proximally from the stupendous theoretical and practical achievements of the modern mathematizing sci­ences, is, ultimately, the legacy of the Greek philosophers’ interpretation of reality as a dependably stable configuration of interrelated forms (or intelligible structures) that can be explored and articulated through a variety of discrete but systematically and hierarchically related sciences.

This interpretation or outlook is so much the currency of our spon­taneous habits of perception that it takes a good deal of effort to become critically conscious that it is not simply the way reality “looks” when one takes a good look at it, but a specific framework tied to certain assumptions and implications. One such assumption is that reality, or being, is completely intelligible. Or, to spell it out: what is real is what is verifi­able, and what is verifiable is intelligible; whereas the intelligible cannot be verified, and so cannot be confirmed as real.26 Though this assump­tion provides their speculative underpinning, it is not directly relevant to the empirical procedures of the natural or human sciences, and it there­fore plays little role in the professional scientific imagination or those influenced by it; nevertheless it does not seem, once articulated, a particularly surprising assertion to the modern scientific mind.

Intelligibility Requires the Divine

A related implication, however, which seems to the modern mind at the very least odd, is that this same interpretation of reality as an autonomous network of intelligible structures is itself unintelligible apart from the assumption of a divine Intelligence. As we saw in the last chapter, Intelligence, or divine Nous, is the Platonic-Aristotelian conception of the ground that corresponds to the differentiating insights of the Greek thinkers who made “science” possible.

The cosmos is revealed to consist of intelligible structure or form only when the divine ground, compactly encountered in the physical environment, is distinguished from nature and its enti­ties, leaving them stable and predictable (that is, lacking the volitions and volatility of “the gods”). When, as in the contemporary West, we re­tain the philosophical-scientific perspective of reality as a hierarchically layered system of regular structures and dependable relations and occur­rences, and at the same time abandon the associated insight into the ground as transcendent Intelligence, we sever the philosophical image of reality from its root and render nonsensical the “scientific” remainder. As Voegelin sums up the issue:

“Structure as the face of reality becomes historically visible when the polymorphous aetiology of the divine in the myth gives way to the philosophers’ aetiology of the divine as the prote arche of all reality, as it is eminently experienced in man’s tension toward the ground of his existence. Cognitively structured reality, unencumbered by compact experiences and symbolizations of divine presence, is correlative to the theophany of the Nous; the openness toward reality at large depends on the openness of the psyche toward the divine ground. No science as the systematic exploration of structure in reality is possible, unless the world is intelligible; and the world is intelligible in relation to a psyche that has become luminous for the order of reality through the revelation of the one, divine ground of all being as the Nous.”27

Voegelin is under no illusions about the capacity of most, philosophers and scientists included, to grasp what he is saying here, not merely be­cause of the inherent difficulty of the philosophers’ insight, but also because in the modern West we have become accustomed to the question of the ground being answered in terms of one or another type of structure revealed within the hierarchy of intelligible spatiotemporal structures.

In other words, the mundane stratum of philosophically differentiated real­ity, massively present in language symbols, has come to be interpreted as the whole of reality by latter-day compact imagination and under­standing, with the result that the ground is “misplaced somewhere in an immanent hierarchy of being.” Our culture is, in Voegelin’s view, overwhelmingly influenced by speculative interpretations of reality per­formed by consciousnesses that have not sufficiently grasped the mean­ing and implications of their own intellectual and spiritual character, and so they have collapsed the ground back into the hierarchy of structures of a dedivinized world.28

A complementary pattern, Voegelin would say, in general holds true for our relationship to the God of Jews and Christians. If one is inca­pable of undergoing for oneself, either through personal meditation or through sympathetic imagination, the pneumatic differentiations that im­pelled the tensional separation of the cosmos into transcendent God and mundane world, one will be unable to make proper sense of the reality imagined and conceived through Judeo-Christian categories and sym­bols.

Nevertheless, the cosmos of the pagan gods is fled, and it cannot be recovered; our imaginal habitat is unmistakably the “disenchanted universe,” in Max Weber’s phrase. If the “living God of the Fathers” is dead, then one is compelled to suffer the cramping of the ground of reality into the dimensions of that disenchanted universe, into desacralized space and time. Voegelin writes of these phenomena often in terms of the “immanen­tization” of the transcendent ground. The ground is sought for in spa­tiotemporal reality once again:

“We still have, of course, the quest of the ground, we want to know where things come from. But . . . we can see, beginning about the middle of the eighteenth century, in the Enlightenment, a whole series of misplacements of the ground. The transcendent ground is misplaced somewhere in an immanent hierarchy of being . . . . [And we] can observe, for the last two hundred years, that every possible locale where one could misplace the ground has been exhausted.”

Such a situation is inappropriately described as neopaganism, he observes, because the imputation of the ground to intracosmic forces and entities in traditional mythic thought is only superficially similar to the imputa­tion of the ground to some portion of the dedivinized universe experi­enced as an “It” and not, without disingenuousness, as a “Thou.”

In the former case, human existence is consciously related, albeit compactly, to the divine mystery of its own ground: it is free to experience emotionally, and to portray for itself, its own givenness as mysteriously fulfilling a destiny ordained by the encompassing purposive powers of “the gods.” In the latter case, however, human existence is alienated from any such purposive powers. The ground, whether identified with human reason or with some physical stratum of being, down to the subatomic particles or even a mysterious “energy, ” is not sacred. Sacred meaning and pur­pose have either dissolved in the impersonal determinisms of nature, or been absorbed into a human reason that must then cope with the prob­lems of justifying a conception of itself as its own ground.29

Such cultural conditions Voegelin understands to offer enormous ob­stacles to recognizing the tension of existence as the in-between of finite and divine reality, and so to finding existential orientation through the classical symbols, philosophical or spiritual, that were designed to pro­vide guidance into and within the “truth of existence.” In the modern context, the tension of existence might be said, in his view, to be bent back upon itself or upon its disenchanted biological or material founda­tions, regularly discharging in outbursts of irrationalism and aggression its frustrated efforts to experience its own meaning as participating in a yet more meaningful story, a mysteriously complete and redemptive story, being told by the Whole, by divine reality.

Voegelin’s analysis leads to the conclusion that, in the context of a cultural horizon whose imaginal and conceptual contours have been shaped by philosophical and Judeo-Christian insights, the alternative to an existential ordering of consciousness through ascertainment and affirmation of a transcendent ground of being is the interpretation of existence as participating only in a story that is random, or mechanistically determined, or as ephemeral as human consciousness appears to be under its conditions of mortality–in short, a story that is absurd.

Finding the Beyond and the Beginning

The ancient myths of origins, it was asserted, serve to situate fragile human existence in the enduring, comprehensive story being told by reality through “remembering” and retelling the divine events that took place in the Beginning, which ordained the necessary dispensation of things. But when experiences of transcendence have made symbolization of the ground in terms of sensual imagery emotionally and intellectually unconvincing, it becomes possible–indeed inevitable–for questions about primordial Beginnings to lead to the notion of a something “be­fore” the existence of finite, imaginable things.

But here thinking runs into something of a paradox. What we mean by “time” is the condition of duration, or endurance, of the universe we inhabit. If experiences of transcendence bring to our attention a ground that is extra-spatiotemporal, then divine creation, which produced the world and its time, must have occurred “before” time. In other words, the differentiation of consciousness forces the speculative severance of all mundane events from the “act” or “acts” of sacred creation, and it compels the latter to be understood as a mysterious occurrence that “happened,” as it were, before time. This paradoxical symbolization of a “Beginning before time” ought not to be dismissed as irrational, Voege­lin insists, as it is a reasonable outgrowth of the differentiation of con­sciousness, but it does need to be informed by the critical realization that it expresses both a fact and a mystery.

The fact is that a transcendent ground is responsible for the coming into being of this universe; the mystery is constituted by our knowing that we can have no direct con­ception or understanding of this “process,” since human consciousness cannot directly conceive of a process that is not intrinsically temporal. What we can understand, then, is that our apprehension of the “event” of such a creation is analogical: that we are applying spatial and temporal categories to what we know can only indirectly and inadequately be represented by them. It is possible, therefore, to tell with honesty and conviction the “story” of a Creation that originates outside of time and outside of space, as the Judeo-Christian tradition of a creation ex nihilo does, while recognizing that it involves the use of imperfect analogy, that it is, in fact, a kind of mythos–but a mythos, be it well noted, that is informed by and is in harmony with critical-rational questioning and spiritually differentiated insights. Voegelin has spelled out, with admira­ble clarity, the sequence of insights just adumbrated:

“As he moves back on the time line, [man the questioner] will discover the regress to be indefinite. He will not find a divine beginning in time. The ground he is seeking is to be found, not in the things of the cosmos and their time dimension, but in the mystery of a creative beginning of the cosmos in a time out of time. Still, when the seeker makes the discovery, he will not abandon the directional index but use it analog­ically to symbolize the divinely-creative beginning of a reality that has a time dimension after all. The creational Beginning as an analogical symbol will denote therefore not a beginning in the time dimension of the world, but a beginning in the analogical time of a creation story.”30

Mythoi of creation are not rendered obsolete, therefore, Voegelin’s analysis shows, by the new truths revealed by critical reason and differ­entiated spirituality. On the contrary, some story of the genesis of the cos­mos from the divine ground–what Voegelin calls in The Ecumenic Age a “cosmogonic myth”–remains in his view a permanent requirement of healthy, inquiring consciousness, expressing our trust and our under­standing that we are participants in a story that embraces, transcends, and completes us.

Such a mythos cannot reasonably be replaced either by a literal, “scientific” account of “creation” (since the nature of a transcen­dent Beginning transcends our comprehension), or by a simple refusal to offer any answer at all to the question as to why and wherefrom exis­tence in the cosmos has come to pass (since we are granted enough knowl­edge about reality to fashion a story that satisfies our existential perspec­tive). Rather, the mythoi can be, and have been, adjusted in accordance with the differentiations of consciousness. The archaic cosmogonies “in strictly Cosmological form in which the divine presence is symbolized by the intracosmic gods” have given way in the Western philosophical and spiritual traditions to “cosmogonies in which these gods have been af­fected, to a lesser or greater degree, by the spiritual outbursts which locate divine reality in the Beyond of all intramundane content.”31

The Most Nearly Adequate Differentiation

Voegelin argues that it is the Judeo-Christian tradition, and not Pla­tonic-Aristotelian insights (or Eastern spiritual discoveries), that achieves the most thorough differentiation with respect to divine-cosmic origins. In The Ecumenic Age, he explains that in John’s Gospel the Creator God of Genesis I, who created all reality through his Word, is identified with the divine presence in the consciousness of Jesus, which is, Voegelin would say, maximally differentiated for its radical transcendence. That is, the Word of the Beginning that spoke reality into being is, in John’s telling, the very same “word from the Beyond” that speaks now through the consciousness of Jesus, the word that calls each person to “eternal life,” to a meaning that is not “of the cosmos” but is, as Jesus gives as­surance, “victorious over the cosmos.” Through the epiphany of Christ, as Voegelin sees it, the divine Beginning is taken to its utmost remove from the cosmic stream of being and becoming. 32

It is not the intention here to investigate Voegelin’s thought in its rela­tion to Christian theology. The salient point is that growing illumination about the transcendent nature of the ground both does and does not alter our relationship to cosmic Beginnings. It changes nothing in that some notion of a Beginning is still required in order to make sense of reality; but that notion itself changes as the spiritual and recondite character of the creation of the cosmos is more and more fully realized. Beyond these facts, however, there is a related, but more subtle and more disturbing consequence that follows from these developments. This is the fact that a certain tension, as Voegelin calls it, emerges between (1) the divine ground insofar as it is experienced as the ordering presence that has made and still makes the cosmos what it is and (2) the divine ground as that furtherance of meaning, value, and reality dis­cerned to be supraworldly in the questioning and yearning consciousness of human beings.

The divine ground both forms the world and is a mean­ing that transcends it. And since humans are the foundations-inclusive site in finite reality where the illumination of the Whole transpires, it can be said that all finitude representatively becomes, through the acts of differentiation that are occasioned by the search for the true ground, aware of its own movement toward transcendent reality. It appears that finite reality is engaged, through the human search for meaning, in its transformation in the direction of the perfection of the Beyond. “Reality in this comprehensive sense is experienced as engaged in a movement of transcending itself in the direction of eminent reality.”33

This is perhaps in Voegelin’s view the central mystery of existence. Divine reality, the reality of the ground, is, he writes, “experienced in the two modes of the Beyond and the Beginning.” The locus, the medium, of the discovery of the divine ground as the Beginning is the palpable cos­mos, which presents itself as a fact demanding causal explanation: it is “the whole [which is] transparent for the presence of the divine ground.” But the experience of the divine ground as a Beyond, as transcendent meaning, in the differentiating insights reveals “the manifold of exis­tent things [to be] in tension toward the non-existent ground.”

In other words, the divinely created cosmos is dynamically oriented toward “a more eminent degree of reality” than exists in the created cosmos. Or, as Voegelin puts it, reality is structured in such a way that, through the differentiating insights, it is recognized to be moving beyond its present structure. Or again one might say: the meaning incarnate in the spa­tiotemporal universe and in finite consciousness is dynamically related to a supraworldly reality that is its completion, fulfillment, or perfection of meaning. Thus Voegelin concludes that the process of “transfiguration,” or “eschatological movement,” is at the heart of the story being told by reality. 34 The mystery of this state of affairs is put best by Voegelin in a brief passage in The Ecumenic Age:

“There is a cosmos in which man participates by his existence; man is endowed with cognitive consciousness of the reality in which he is a partner; consciousness differentiates in a process called history; and in the process of history man discovers reality to be engaged in a move­ment toward the Beyond of its present structure. A cosmos that moves from its divine Beginning toward a divine Beyond of itself is mysterious indeed.”35

Further discussion of Voegelin’s conception of human existence as conscious participation in a mystery of transfiguration, and of the need, for mythic symbolization of that mystery, will be necessary in order to show [see the following chapter] how this analysis of the experiences of transcendence informs a conception of “history” that is rather at odds with our commonsense understanding of the term.

History is not, for Voegelin, the mere unfolding of events, human or otherwise, on a time line. It is the pattern of the meaning of human existence as it unfolds under temporal conditions; and that pattern of meaning, in his view, takes its decisive form from the differentiating experiences that reveal the eschatological tension in finite reality.



1. The Ecumenic Age, 75.

2. Ibid., 64; “The Beginning and the Beyond,” 176. For a similar analysis of mytho­speculation, from which Voegelin’s may be derived, see Henri Frankfort, H. A. Frank­fort, John A. Wilson, Thorkild Jacobsen, and William A. Irwin, The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man, 8-10.

3. The Ecumenic Age, 285, 321. Gregor Sebba justifiably maintains that “Voegelin has tried hard to do justice to the East, but his heart is not in it” (“Prelude and Varia­tions on the Theme of Eric Voegelin,” 44). Still, Voegelin has clearly examined Eastern cultures in the light of his theory of differentiation, and his writings evidence strong, if not profound, familiarity with the great Eastern religions and “philosophies.” He has testified to the influence on his thought of an early exposure to the Upanishads, and there are numerous references to the Upanishads in his work; see especially The Ecumenic Age, 319-22, and The World of the Polis, 18-19, where the “Brahmanic experience of reality” is described in the context of the fuller differentiations of con­sciousness in Israel and Hellas. For comments on the Buddha and “Buddhist con­sciousness, ” see The World of the Polis, I, 18-19, and The Ecumenic Age, 328-29. On Confucius and Confucianism, see Israel and Revelation, 61-62. And finally there is his examination of early Chinese political symbols in the sixth chapter of The Ecumenic Age, “The Chinese Ecumene.”

4. The Ecumenic Age, 68; Frankfort et al., The Intellectual Adventure, 4-8, 363-64.

5. Metaphysics 1071b6-10; Physics 206a9-206b1, 208a5-25, 250b11-252b7.

6. Anamnesis, 86. For detail on the distinction between the two types of question, see ibid., 83-88, and Voegelin, “In Search of the Ground,” 3-5.

7. Israel and Revelation, 1-8, 27; The Ecumenic Age, 71-73.

8. ”Theology Confronting World Religions?” 46. “On Consubstantiality,” see Frank­fort et al., The Intellectual Adventure, 62-69.

9. Israel and Revelation, 3; The Ecumenic Age, 76.

10. The Ecumenic Age, 72; “Equivalences of Experience,” 127; “Immortality,” 92. The word kosmos attained its meaning as “world order” or “order of reality” only in the early philosophical speculations of pre-Socratics such as Pythagoras, Anaximander, and Heraclitus. Its prephilosophical meaning appears to have been restricted to such phenomena as the “good order” of adornment on a beautiful woman, the “good order” to be found in a well-disciplined arrangement of military troops, or the “right order” of a political community. See Charles H. Kahn, The Art and Thought of Heraclitus, 132-33, 312, and Werner Jaeger, Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture, vol. 1, 110.

11. The Ecumenic Age, 77.

12. Ibid., 72.

13. A survey of the critical literature on Voegelin’s religious and political interpretations can be found in John Kirby, “On Reading Eric Voegelin: A Note on the Critical Literature.” A challenge to aspects of Voegelin’s interpretation of the Old Testament can be found in Bernhard W. Anderson, “Politics and the Transcendent: Voegelin’s Philosophical and Theological Exposition of the Old Testament in the Context of the Ancient Near East.”

For criticisms of his interpretation of the Gospels and Christian existence, see, for example, Bruce Douglass, “A Diminished Gospel: A Critique of Voegelin’s Interpretation of Christianity”; Gerhart Niemeyer, “Eric Voegelin’s Philos­ophy and the Drama of Mankind”; and Thomas J. J. Altizer, “A New History and a New but Ancient God? Voegelin’s The Ecumenic Age.” A thoughtful criticism of some aspects of Voegelin’s interpretation of Plato and Aristotle may be found in George Anastaplo, “On How Eric Voegelin Has Read Plato and Aristotle.”

14. On the Greek discovery of transcendence, see The World of the Polis, 207-11, 220-21, 239-40; Anamnesis, 77-81; and The New Science of Politics, 64-70. On the complementarity of the Greek discovery with Hebrew and Christian insights into transcendence, see Voegelin, “The Gospel and Culture, ” 173-92.

15. The Ecumenic Age, 8-9; In Search of Order, 99.

16. Voegelin, “The Beginning and the Beyond, ” 185.

17. On the phrases “truth of the cosmos” and “truth of existence, ” see The Ecumenic Age, 8-9, 71-73, 315.

18. The Ecumenic Age, 8. For clarification about the relation of “cosmos” to “world, ” see Anamnesis, 78-79; and “In Search of the Ground, ” 12-13.

19. The Greek philosophers, Voegelin explains, had to develop “a host of new sym­bols that [expressed] the experience of an area of reality intermediate between God and man” (“Immortality,” 89). Nous became the divine-human organ that orders real­ity and apperceives its structure; logos the structure itself in both thought and reality; and psyche the site where human and divine nous reach into and interpenetrate each other in the realization of logos (See Anamnesis, 91-97; and The World of the Polis, 227-39, 292-94).

The development of symbols corresponding to these in the Israelite orbit, Voegelin tells us, was hindered by obstacles deriving from the deeply rooted ban on conceiving the human as in any way commensurate with divinity or immortality. The notion of a soul’s personal destiny in relation with the divine ground is absent from Israelite culture; the spirit of God (the ruach of Yahweh) “is present with the community and with individuals in their capacity as representatives of the commu­nity, but it is not present as the ordering force in the soul of every man” (Israel and Revelation, 240).

Therefore, the symbol ruach, designating the stratum of differenti­ated divine presence in consciousness, did not come to express a mutual participation of human and divine in the individual soul until late in the pre-Christian period. But by the time of Jesus the ban had in effect broken down. His followers used the Greek translation of ruach, pneuma, along with the philosophical terms nous and logos, to communicate their experiences of an “extraordinary divine irruption” in the person of Jesus, and its meaning for every person’s opportunity to participate in the eternal life of the spirit (“The Gospel and Culture, ” 192).

20. The Ecumenic Age, 246; “The Gospel and Culture, ” 189, 192; Webb, “Eric Voegelin’s Theory of Revelation, ” 105.

21. The Ecumenic Age, 8.

22. Anamnesis, 198. On Platonic symbols of transcendence, see Plato and Aris­totle, 112-17; The Ecumenic Age, 228-34; “The Gospel and Culture, ” 208-9; “Wis­dom, ” 360-62; and “The Beginning and the Beyond, ” 212-17. For the full passages under discussion, see Plato, Republic 5o6d-509e, and Phaedrus 246a-250c On the prophetic revelations of the “Unknown God” culminating in the epiphany of Christ, see Israel and Revelation, 402-14; and “The Gospel and Culture, ” 194-202.

23. Webb, Eric Voegelin, 44 n. 43. Voegelin has made various references to such mystics as Plotinus, Pseudo-Dionysius Areopagitica, the unknown author of The Cloud of Unknowing, Shankara, Meister Eckhart and Jean Bodin, and to such texts as Rudolf Otto’s Mysticism East and West, but he nowhere discusses them at any length. His most extensive comments on the topic of mysticism are in Anamnesis, 194-99, where he identifies Jean Bodin and Henri Bergson as modern mystics of an exemplary stature.

As to Voegelin’s own mysticism, John Kirby, in “On Reading Eric Voegelin, ” states accurately that “if the mystical element in Voegelin’s speculations were treated seriously, one might see the road, not overly travelled nowadays, that points back to Plato by way of Schelling and Eckhart, as well as Bodin, Scotus Eriugena, Pseudo-Dionysius, St. Augustine, and Plotinus” (54). Nieli, in “Eric Voegelin’s Evolving Ideas, ” 97-101, treats briefly what he calls Voegelin’s “Platonic-Christian style of mysticism, ” and he describes how Voegelin’s interest in mysticism, though certainly deepening in later years, is evidenced in even his earliest writings.

24. Anamnesis, 192.

25. “Equivalences of Experience,” 122; Anamnesis, 97-98;The New Science of Politics,122-23. Bergson’s notion of “the open soul” (l’âme ouverte) is discussed in his Two Sources of Morality and Religion, 37-38, 52-66.

26. For a full articulation of this philosophical position both with respect to mod­ern science and to human understanding in general, see Lonergan, Insight, especially chapters 1, 9, 12, and 19.

27. The Ecumenic Age, 236-37.

28. “In Search of the Ground,” 13-16.

29. Ibid.; The New Science of Politics, 107.

30. “The Beginning and the Beyond,” 174.

31. The Ecumenic Age, II.

32. Ibid., 14, 17. Voegelin’s interpretation centers on John 1 and 8.

33. Ibid., 216.


This excerpt is from Mystery and Myth in the Philosophy of Eric Voegelin (University of Missouri Press, 1993); also see “Ezra Pound and the Balance of Consciousness” and “The Terror of History.”

Glenn HughesGlenn Hughes

Glenn Hughes

Glenn Hughes is Professor of Philosophy at St. Mary’s University in Texas. He is author of several books, including Transcendence and History (Missouri, 2003); A More Beautiful Question (Missouri, 2011); and co-editor, with Charles Embry, of The Eric Voegelin Reader: Politics, History, Consciousness (Missouri, 2017).

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